Russia’s World Cup political football

The bid to host a World Cup in Russia contains unsubtle approval to rogue states, finds Mark Gilbey 

NMTB will forgive you for not being au fait with the political goings-on in Transdniestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia (well, perhaps not Transdniestr, you've been apprised about Sheriff Tiraspol).

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After all, the British press have offered the rogue states zilch in the way of column inches. But if you're not confident as to their locations, you could always look them up on a map – like, for example, the one on Russia’s 2018/2022 World Cup bid site.

Controversially, Transdniestr in Moldova and the Georgian pair of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are demarcated by dotted lines – a symbol of their disputed status and, cynics would argue, Russia’s tacit approval.

Note dotted lines in Moldova (bottom left) and Georgia (under yellow circle)

Not being a sadistic sort of blog that enjoys administering a good old proverbial kick in the knackers to a high-profile body, it wouldn’t have the temerity to speculate what the motives would be for the inclusion of a trio of schismatic republics who covet international recognition and receive vehement Kremlin support as separate entities on their slick artwork.

Before NMTB could be accused of firing off assertions about Russia squirreling away political messages in their impressive bid, it contacted Andreas Herren, their International Media and Communication chappie. He didn’t proffer a litigious statement that verbally stuck two fingers up in the direction of Moldova and Georgia, insteing informed the blog that they were an erroneous inclusion.

“It is a purely technical misprint and there are no political considerations whatsoever involved,” he said.

Perhaps South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be peeved to be dubbed a “technical misprint”. It was only two years ago that Russia, in spite of Western admonitions, formally recognised the Georgian breakaway republics as sovereign states.

They eagerly assisted in driving Georgian forces out of the disputed territories in 2008, in a bloody conflict that has its roots in the Caucuses' Soviet past. Moscow shrewdly fostered autonomous regions in the USSR, almost like Trojan horses to quell potential turmoil in ambitious republics who were not toeing the party line.

So when the safety net of Kremlin support was whipped away, South Ossetia and Abkhazia feared the worst, not least when the 2003 Rose Revolution swept the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili to power, who vowed to bring the pair under Tbilisi.

The uprising denoted a volte-face for the tiny state’s political outlook, and with murmurs of NATO membership in the offing, Moscow flexed its muscles. It began doling out Russian passports (over three million to date) in Georgia and the rest of the FSU, which it perceives as its sphere of influence.

Consequently, when it all kicks off, Moscow can intervene under the premise of protecting its poor old victimised subjects. It's a good way of meddling in the lives of others.

Buoyed by Russian backing, the Georgians have been acting with the type of swagger usually reserved for the smug younger brother of a school bully, and have gone on to establish diplomatic relations with their disregarded brethren in Transdniestr. OK, in the grand scheme of things that means bugger all, but it’s symbolic of the impudence they now exhibit with Moscow’s patronage.

To get a flavour of the attitude, you only need to pop to Tiraspol, that surreal capital of Eastern European bleakness peppered with Soviet iconography. (Think Pyongyang and you're not too far off the mark.)

Looming over the populace there’s an outsized poster of a jovial Igor Smirnov, the long-serving president of Transdniestr, who probably once did a cracking turn on the Soviet entertainment circuit as a Ming the Merciless impersonator, greeting his South Ossetian and Abkhazian counterparts Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh. 

The presidents of Transdneistr, South Ossetia & Abkhazia

And now he’s seen what they’ve done with their fiefdoms, it’s piqued his own interest in presiding over a sovereign state.

Russia doesn’t formally recognise the tiny slither of land east of the repugnant Dniestr River in Moldova, although it has maintained a strong military presence there since the 18th Century and assisted them in the civil war that ensued in 1992. The Kremlin also provides it with subsidised fuel and tops up the pensions of its elderly, which isn't a luxury afforded to the rest of Moldova.

Russia parachuted in Ming – sorry, Smirnov – to command Transdniestr in the violent ruction, and he’s ruled the pariah republic for nigh on 20 years now. In that time he’s not just been twiddling his thumbs or playing with (or selling, if you believe some reports) the remnants of one of Europe’s largest arms dumps left behind by the Red Army; Smirnov has established the facets of a fully functioning state.

Transdniestr has its own flag, parliament, constitution, currency, passports and national anthem. They’ve even got a football team in Sheriff Tiraspol, and that stadium they play in ain’t half bad.

Spot the influence on the Transdniestr flag

The club are essentially a promotion tool enjoying huge financial support that has yielded nine straight Divisia Naţională titles, and it was something of a PR coup when they reached the group stages of the Europa League this season.

Smirnov is assisted by Proriv, a political party whose name translates as “breakthrough” and brazenly advocates “the idea of Pridnestrovie’s integration to Russia, struggle for preservation of Russia’s presence in the region of Moldavian-Pridnestrovian conflict.” They obviously do some cracking work at the Che Guevara School for Political Leadership in Tiraspol.

Evidently Transdniestrians enjoy their political posters, because there’s one of the group depicting a brooding Che, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and power-behind-the-throne Vladimir Putin occupying a prominent position on Ulitsa 25 Oktober, the main artery of Tiraspol.

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For what it’s worth, even the most optimistic of Moldovans (and there’s not many of them) would concede that Transdniestr is for all intents and purposes lost.

Chişinău will never rein in the rebels and assuage a population indoctrinated with a pro-independence mantra, but it would take a courageous leader to sign away such a chunk of land, even if its destiny as a Russian enclave is almost inevitable.

The issue necessitates a final resolution. Moldova covets a place at the European Union table, and the Brussels mandarins have vowed never to proffer membership to a divided nation such as Cyprus again.

That won’t occur for another 25 years, but the subject generates so much angst in Moldova and sooner or later the Kremlin will seize it anyway, so they may as well just concede defeat now and save the bloodshed. It might not be the correct solution, but it’s the most feasible.

Just a couple of weeks ago Smirnov offered Transdniestr as a base for Moscow’s Iskander Missiles, in response to America aspiring to place some of theirs in Romania.

In Russia’s defence, they don’t formally recognise Kosovo, yet that is included on the map; it’s quite conceivable that the Balkan state could’ve been omitted. If the Bid Committee wishes to include the disputed trio, they're perfectly entitled to.

Although, as they affirm, it’s only a “technical misprint”, so maybe NMTB’s just looking at the cartographic blooper through Western, anti-Russian eyes.

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